Difficulties in summarizing Mormon doctrine

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"It is a matter of curiosity to many and an annoyance to some that it is sometime difficult to get definitive answers from members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church) to what seem like straightforward questions, questions of the form 'Why do you believe or do x?'" - James Faulconer, BYU Professor of Philosophy
"Mormon theology is unusually informal, vague and undefined." - Kaimi Wenger (Mormon)[1]

The beliefs of Mormonism comprise a body of evolving doctrine, much of which is still historically rooted in the teachings of Joseph Smith and other Mormon leaders. Mormonism claims to be the best source for doctrinal clarity and revelation, but ironically its doctrine is typically hard to "pin down" for various reasons. Some of this comes from internal disagreement[2], some of it comes from an unwillingness to be unequivocal about controversial doctrines, and some of it comes from change[3]---much of which stems from an eagerness to mainstream or abandon embarrassing historical roots. Change sometimes comes by formal "revelation", but most often it comes by the quiet, informal distancing from a teaching over time. While it is true that "each generation must produce a new set of gospel expositors to restate and reinterpret the doctrines", there is a strong oral tradition in Mormonism, and "a significant part of Mormon theology exists primarily in the minds of the members."[4] Many members simply assume that "the Church teaches many principles which are accepted as doctrines but which the First Presidency has seen no need to declare in an official pronouncement."[5]

Determining what the religion still teaches and believes can be difficult, as "the LDS Church is of often guilty of teaching two messages – one for the membership and one for the general public." [6] In the end, it is largely due to the fact that Mormonism is generally atheological. It is still possible and helpful to summarize and systemize much of what Mormons believe, and understand how it fits into their worldview.


[edit] Approaches to the issue of "doctrine"

[edit] Sociological

Some approach the issue of Mormon doctrine sociologically: What beliefs are widely accepted, taught, and practiced within Mormonism at a lay-level? What doctrinal trends are present? What sources contribute to these various beliefs? The answers to these questions are not simple, as belief within Mormonism is complex and diverse. To survey the landscape of Mormon belief, it might help to read the following sources:

There is also the issue of folk doctrine.

[edit] Historical authoritative statements

Many statements have been made by those in authority that have not been repudiated at the same capacity of authoritativeness. These are of value to some Mormons who would like to substantiate a belief that is falling out of the mainstream, and to evangelical countercultists who would like to expose the historical teachings that Mormonism is unwilling to publicly and unequivocally reject.[7] Some see this as an unfair standard, and see modern developments as positive and cause for optimism, and see confrontation over past teachings as counterproductive to the encouraging doctrinal changes that are already seemingly taking place. Others see less cause for such optimism, and think it a moral duty to confront Mormons with these unrepudiated beliefs, since it is a deeply significant issue that people are so aloof to them. Such unrepudiated, classical Mormon beliefs often serve for a clearer contrast with the doctrines of traditional, Biblical Christianity.

[edit] Contemporary "official" doctrine

Another approach is to focus on what Mormonism "officially" teaches today. This approach is extremely difficult to carry out. There is no one standard for what constitutes "official doctrine". There is very little the Mormon organization is willing to consistently affirm in an undeniable, unequivocal, "official" capacity. One taking this approach might ask: What past doctrinal proclamations continue to be appealed to from the leadership? What are official representatives willing to articulate in public?

Some hold that one method of carrying out this approach is to appeal to official Mormon canon. This is unhelpful because, given the concept of "continuing revelation", the very concept of Mormon canon is problematic. Mormons have a very selective, low view of the Bible, rejecting its most fundamental doctrines on the nature of God and means of salvation. It is inaccurate to generalize Mormons as believing in the Bible. Mormons also reject the Book of Mormon's view on the nature of God. The Book of Mormon is not representative of distinctive Mormon doctrine. Mormons often read the standard works using categories that were later supplied, such as from the King Follet Discourse by Joseph Smith, or the doctrine of divine investiture formulated by James Talmage. Mormon "doctrine" is not accurately reflected in a historical-grammatical reading of its standard works.

"Even though it is a revealed religion, Mormonism is all but creedless... While certain doctrines are enunciated in the standard works and some doctrinal issues have been addressed in formal pronouncements by the First Presidency, there is nothing in Mormonism comparable to the Westminster Confession of Faith or the Augsburg Confession. Few of the truly distinctive doctrines of Mormonism are discussed in 'official' sources. It is mainly by 'unofficial' means-Sunday School lessons, seminary, institute, and BYU religion classes, sacrament meeting talks and books by Church officials and others who ultimately speak only for themselves-that the theology is passed from one generation to the next. Indeed it would seem that a significant part of Mormon theology exists primarily in the minds of the members. The absence of a formal creed means that each generation must produce a new set of gospel expositors to restate and reinterpret the doctrines of Mormonism."[8]

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[edit] Modern emphasis

Others prefer to appeal to what the Mormon organization as a whole, including those at the lay-level, emphasize in their explicit teaching. This approach has led persons like Richard Mouw to believe that the theology of the Lorenzo Snow couplet has "no functioning place" in modern Mormonism. One taking this approach might ask: What doctrines are being emphasized in popular Mormon literature? What is acceptably and regularly taught in seminary, institute, and gospel doctrine classes? What has been affirmed at General Conference in the past five years? What has been affirmed in literature recently published by the Mormon organization? What kinds of things is the current president willing to affirm in public interviews?

This approach has the disadvantages of yielding diverse results (since, for example, what is emphasized at General Conference differs from what is emphasized in popular Mormon literature), inadequately reflecting the landscape of belief among Mormon laymen, as well as treating important, unrepudiated, traditional beliefs, which are no longer given public emphasis, with indifference.

[edit] Redefined language while still using the privileges of the traditional sense of terms

Every significant theological term in Mormonism has a wide, flexibly used range of meaning. Often Mormons terms are used to simultaneously promote distinctively Mormon concepts to insiders while obscuring the novel meaning to outsiders.

[edit] Changing, difficult to systematize, and never final

"In the beginnings of the LDS church, its philosophy and theology were quite fluid and in some respects transitory, a condition entirely normal for a movement in its infancy. In the early years, the theology was not basically different from typical Protestantism, but there were radical changes before the death of Joseph Smith. In the first decades of this century, the philosophy and theology achieved a considerable measure of stability and consistency. But things changed after the death in 1933 of the Church's leading theologians, Brigham H. Roberts and James E. Talmage; now for several decades there has been considerable confusion in Mormon thought, with the result that it is often difficult if not impossible to determine just what are and what are not the officially accepted doctrines" (Sterling McMurrin [respected Mormon philosopher], "Some Distinguishing Characteristics of Mormon Philosophy," Sunstone 16:4/35, March 1993).

Many other Mormons, including the president, deny such change:

"Those who observe us say that we are moving into the mainstream of religion. We are not changing. The world's perception of us is changing. We teach the same doctrine..." (Gordon B. Hinckley, Ensign, November 2001, p .5)
"The doctrines will remain fixed, eternal; the organization, programs, and procedures will be altered as directed by Him whose church this is." (Boyd K. Packer, "Revelation in a Changing World," Ensign, November 1989, p. 14)[9]

Speaking of the disinclination Mormons have for coherent, systematic theology, James Faulconer (professor at BYU) writes:

"It is a matter of curiosity to many and an annoyance to some that it is sometime difficult to get definitive answers from members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church) to what seem like straightforward questions, questions of the form 'Why do you believe or do x?' Apart from, on the one hand, basic doctrines—most of which Latter-day Saints share with other Christians, such as that Jesus is divine, and some of which differentiate us, such as the teaching that Joseph Smith was a prophet of God—and, on the other, moral teachings, seldom can one say without preface or explanation what Latter-day Saints believe... Latter-day Saints remain atheological, in other words, ... they remain without an official or even semi-official philosophy that explains and gives rational support to their beliefs and teachings. As I use the word theology here, it begins with belief and uses the methods of rational philosophy to give support to that belief: systematic or rational theology... [S]ome Latter-day Saint leaders and thinkers have devoted considerable energy to formulating theologies of various kinds. Nevertheless, none of those efforts have come to fruition as an official or even semi-official theology and I think none will." -James E. Faulconer, "Why a Mormon Won’t Drink Coffee but Might Have a Coke: The Atheological Character of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints" [2]

Those who interact with Mormons may be often frustrated with euphemistic presentations or what seems like a denial of historic and mainstream teachings. Keeping in mind the things mentioned above as well as understanding a number of teachings as deprecated or disputed is helpful. In the end, it may prove fruitful to understand that Mormons may not desire to systematize their beliefs. According to Mormon apologist Blake Ostler:

"There is no authoritative systematic development of Mormon beliefs. There is no final, once and for all, statement of the truth." (Exploring Mormon Thought, p. 69).

[edit] What constitutes doctrine?

"The Church has a relatively small body of truly official doctrine, augmented by a large body of authorative pronouncements accorded varying doctrinal weight. Precariously balanced between these two poles is an enormous body of folk doctrine and unofficial exegesis." - Kristine Haglund Harris[10]

There is no clear, formal definition of what constitutes official doctrine in Mormonism. Laymen usually assume that most anything taught by a prophet or published by the Church organization (such as church magazines or manuals) should be taken as trustworthy. Owing much to their familiarity with the embarrassing panorama and diversity of statements made by LDS leadership, Mormon apologists and academics tend to steer toward the idea that only that which is in the standard works (the canon) can be considered doctrine, and that material from older prophets is disposable. Depending on how steeped one is in the knowledge of Mormon history, there are varying degrees of nuance to this, such as the requirement that the prophet preface a teaching with "thus saith the Lord" [11].

Mormons pride themselves in having no formal creeds or catechisms, and in having a modern-day prophet who gives modern revelation and doctrinal clarity, which more or less free them up from having to worry about old teachings. Mormons belief is shaped by a variety of practical influences: the standard works, church manuals, customs (like temple worthiness interviews or temple ceremonies), and popular teachings promoted by BYU professors or regular laymen are all examples of that which help influence the landscape of Mormon belief.

[edit] "Continuing revelation" and the problematic notion of "scripture" in Mormonism

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See related article: Continuing revelation

[edit] How Mormon doctrine dies

To the annoyance of many Mormons, some doctrines "maintain a zombie-like existence when they should just stay dead" [1], never quite receiving formal repudiation, no longer renewed with formal endorsement or emphasis, yet staying alive in the form of old statements made by church leaders. This problem is aggravated by the internet.

Doctrine in Mormonism can sometimes have a "shelf-life", and prophetic declarations by leaders can be time-sensitive. When such a Mormon doctrine dies, it normally does so though distancing over time, not formal repudiation.[12] Formal repudiation is usually avoided by Mormon leaders. It would highlight the fallibility of church leaders (particularly prophets) and potentially bring a sensitive, embarrassing issue to light, prompting many to investigate material from earlier Church leaders which isn't faith-promoting.

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[edit] Quotes

[edit] Notes

  1. http://www.timesandseasons.org/?p=3376
  2. "In Mormonism there has been such a wide range of (for lack for a better word) contradiction that it's easy sometimes for the Mormon apologist to pick a quote from something his leader has said that best fits the predicament he's in right now, even though it may conflict with something else this this guy has said himself." -Bill McKeever, "LDS Forgiveness: Now, Later, or Ever?". Available online (MP3).
  3. "What is authorized doctrine today may become folk doctrine tomorrow. This is no different than the shift away from teachings of our greatest heroes (e.g., Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, John Taylor, etc.) and will be no different for our children’ leaders." -J. Stapley, "Authorized Doctrine". September 13, 2006. Accessed 2006/11/16. URL: http://www.bycommonconsent.com/2006/09/authorized-doctrine/
  4. Peter Crawley. "Parley P. Pratt: Father of Mormon Pamphleteering", Dialogue, Autumn 1982, pp. 20-21. Quoted in "Speaking with Authority," Sunstone 10:3/13 (Mar 85)
  5. Gerald N. Lund, “I Have a Question,” Ensign, Feb. 1982, 39–40
  6. "Was Jesus Married?", by Bill McKeever. Accessed 8/27/2006. URL: http://www.mrm.org/multimedia/text/was-jesus-married.html. Extended quote:
    "Are Latter-day Saints given the option to treat comments from general authorities as they would a restaurant salad bar, picking and choosing only what appeals to them? Well, according to one LDS Church manual, 'Prophets have the right to personal opinions. Not every word they speak should be thought of as an official interpretation or pronouncement. However, their discourses to the Saints, and their official writings should be considered products of their official prophetic calling and should be heeded' (Teachings of the Living Prophets, p.21. Emphasis mine). Are we to assume that the LDS leadership and its PR department don't read their church's manuals? Or are we to assume that they hope the membership doesn't? One thing is abundantly clear and that is the LDS Church is of often guilty of teaching two messages -- one for the membership and one for the general public. May our Lord expose this duplicity and in doing so cause Mormons everywhere to see that their church has no intention of being truthful when it comes to its teachings or history."
  7. Living Hope Ministries explains why they list older Mormon quotes on their web site: "Because of the confusing and somewhat fluid nature of LDS doctrine and thought, we believe it is important to highlight significant statements by LDS leaders and official church publications in order to substantiate doctrines and teachings, particularly those which are often avoided in any kind of public arena. While it is true that Mormons believe in 'continuing revelation' and that new doctrines or prophetic revelations can 'trump' old ones, this belief, in and of itself, is problematic for a biblical understanding of who God is. In addition, none of the inflammatory doctrines from earlier teachings (with a very short list of exceptions) have been officially recanted or changed; rather, they are 'swept under the rug,' as it were." Accessed 11/17/2006. URL: http://www.mormonchallenge.com/ref_quotes.htm.
  8. Peter Crawley. "Parley P. Pratt: Father of Mormon Pamphleteering", Dialogue, Autumn 1982, pp. 20-21. Quoted in "Speaking with Authority," Sunstone 10:3/13 (Mar 85)
  9. Packer also said, "Procedures, programs, the administrative policies, even some patterns of organization are subject to change. We are quite free, indeed, quite obliged to alter them from time to time. But the principles, the doctrines, never change." ("Principles," Ensign, March 1985, p. 6, emphasis his)
  10. URL: http://www.people.fas.harvard.edu/~buskirk/KHarris.pdf. Was accessible 3/15/2004.
  11. Not only is the "thus saith the Lord" prerequisite inconsistent with Mormon denial of doctrines that have been qualified with such language (such as Brigham Young's Adam-God teaching), but the idea of the necessary qualifier itself is repudiated by the 13th "prophet" of the Mormon religion, Ezra Taft Benson, in "Fourteen Fundamentals in Following the Prophet":
    "The prophet does not have to say 'Thus saith the Lord' to give us scripture. Sometimes there are those who haggle over words. They might say the prophet gave us counsel, but that we are not obligated to follow it unless he says it is a commandment. But the Lord says of the Prophet Joseph, 'Thou shalt give heed unto all his words and commandments which he shall give unto you' (D&C 21:4). And speaking of taking counsel from the prophet, in D&C 108:1, the Lord states: 'Verily thus saith the Lord unto you, my servant Lyman: Your sins are forgiven you, because you have obeyed my voice in coming up hither this morning to receive counsel of him whom I have appointed'. Said Brigham Young, 'I have never yet preached a sermon and sent it out to the children of men, that they may not call scripture' (Journal of Discourses, 26 vols. [London: Latter-day Saints' Book Depot], 13:95). Available here: http://lds-mormon.com/fourteen.shtml
  12. For an excellent Mormon blog post on this topic, read "How does Mormon doctrine die?", by Kaimi Wenger.
  13. Source here.
  14. Available online here.
  15. Gerald N. Lund, “I Have a Question,” Ensign, Feb. 1982, 39–40
  16. Stephen E. Robinson, “Are Mormons Christians?” New Era, May 1998
  17. Dean L. Larsen, “I Have a Question,” Ensign, Aug. 1977, 38
  18. Joseph Smith, Works of Joseph Smith 183-184
  19. Richard Bushman in "Mormonism and Democratic Politics: Are They Compatible?" Transcript available online here.
  20. http://www.lightplanet.com/response/answers/publications.htm
  21. http://www.fairlds.org/Misc/Is_The%20Seer_a_Reliable_Source.html
  22. http://www.timesandseasons.org/?p=3262

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